BOOKS / The Hay Festival: Wanted: a place to be anonymous: Isabel Hilton and Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes discuss life on the move, fiction, politics and the peace and quiet of London

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THE SUITCASES were still piled up in the sunny living room of Carlos Fuentes's London penthouse. He and his wife had arrived from New York, en route from Mexico City, the previous day. We exchanged the platitudes of transatlantic travel: the chit-chat of peripatetic cosmopolitan man. There have been six months in Mexico; now there will be three months in London, then back to Mexico.

Like the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Fuentes has adopted London as the place in which to be ignored and to write. If you read previous interviews with Fuentes, you will discover that, come rain or shine, he writes between 8am and 1pm. Like many things in the strange world of dead but ever-recycled articles, it is a nearly-truth. In Mexico, he says, he writes not at all. 'Life is just too hectic. I do journalism, I give interviews, the phone goes all day. I have many friends. I appear on television. It has all got worse because of the political changes.' It is the lament of the public man: in this case, the man of culture in a country in which culture is still regarded as something that validates a person's views, rather than rendering them eccentric.

Unlike Mario Vargas Llosa, who was seduced into running for the presidency of his country, Fuentes is not standing for office. In any event, since Mexico has behaved like a one-party state for more than six decades, there would be little credibility in standing for the official party and little point in standing for the opposition. But Fuentes is trying to assert the value of civic culture as Mexico begins to heave herself out of the swamp of the Institutional Revolutionary Party's rule, and he will be back in Mexico on 21 August to preside over his local polling station in the troubled presidential elections.

But for now, it is London and blessed anonymity. Fuentes became a London regular in 1990, when he came to make the television series, The Buried Mirror. It was then that he bought the flat, overlooking a garden square in Earl's Court. At the very top, after a stiff, five-floor climb, light floods the living room, bouncing back off the broken-yellow walls. It is a room in which, as he points out, 'you can read anywhere'.

In London, he says, 'I don't go out much, I just read and write. But in the evening there is the great international city with the best theatre in the world, the opera and so on.' It is not that he leads a hermit's life here: next week, for instance, he will deliver the PEN lecture at the Hay Festival. The distinction is rather between the pleasures of a private life and the obligations of a public one. And as their creator settles into London, a number of works are at different stages: a translation of his friend Harold Pinter's play, Moonlight, is about to open in Mexico City; also in Mexico, his latest novel, Diana the Lonely Huntress, is about to come out. In London, Andre Deutsch is publishing The Orange Tree, five novellas on the theme of the clash of cultures.

The Orange Tree is firmly in the Fuentes tradition: these are games with history and language, masculine, impersonal and cerebral. They betray little about their author's personality, beyond a conspicuous display of erudition and a faintly mocking tone. Of his nationality, or perhaps more accurately his cultural standpoint, they say much more.

Rome conquers Spain (The Two Numantias) and the Spanish language results. Spain, with its North African baggage on board, conquers Aztec Mexico and the Mexican language and nation is born. In Apollo and the Whores, Mexico takes on California and wins. Finally Columbus, who has lived peacefully for 500 years in his New Utopia, is taken over by Japanese corporate developers and is shipped back to Spain: the displaced Sephardic Jew still has in his pocket the key to the house from which he was expelled 500 years ago (The Two Americas). And the orange tree? 'It's a symbol,' he shrugs, 'of the Nature that has been a witness to our folly and has so far survived us, but might not for much longer.'

Conquest, of course, is rarely straightforward, containing within it defeat or, at best, transformation. Cultures heave and strain at each other in order to beget something new, or to be destroyed by the effects of victory. It's all good clean fun, of a post-quincentennial kind.

Fuentes is a bit of a meeting-ground himself. He lives in that global cosmopolitan culture that permits its inhabitants to compare notes on

theatre performances in at least two continents, but his primary audience is Spanish-speaking: the concern with language that runs through The Orange Tree is almost inaccessible in translation. The history he plunders is that rich mixture through which the nations of the New World were filtered, and the dreams his characters dream are unmistakably Latin Utopian.

But, although explicitly Mexican in his preoccupations, Fuentes has the detachment of a man who grew up elsewhere. He was born in Panama in 1928, the son of a Mexican diplomat. Between the ages of five and 10, he lived in Washington DC, where his father struggled to keep relations with the US on an even keel. 'I went to school in Washington DC and felt completely integrated until March 1938,' he says. 'That was when President Cardenas nationalised foreign oil interests in Mexico. From one day to the other, my friends at school stopped talking to me.'

From Washington, the family went to Chile, where, Fuentes says, he learnt respect for the Chilean democratic tradition and a love of the Spanish language. His account of the landmarks of his life is overtly literary. Of Chile he says: 'I discovered the language of Neruda; I made up my mind to be a writer in Spanish.' English, he thought, had enough writers already. 'After that it was Argentina, where I discovered Borges.'

Fuentes felt so passionately about the work of Jorge Luis Borges that he never wanted to meet the man. 'For me he became such a metaphysical reality that it would have been like . . .' - he searched for a comparison of sufficient weight - '. . . like meeting Kafka,' he concluded.

So he read Borges in Buenos Aires, instead of meeting him, and became aware of the undercurrents of the Arabic and Jewish cultures behind the gilding of Catholic Hispanic culture. 'Buenos Aires was a time of extraordinary freedom for me,' he said. 'The military junta in Argentina at that time - towards the end of the war - was extraordinarily Fascist and anti-Semitic, so I asked my father for permission to stay out of school. I roamed the streets: I discovered women for the first time, and the tango. I had a wonderful time.'

Until the family returned home, when Fuentes was 15, Mexico had been a place of summer visits, of time spent with grandmothers. 'That's probably why I wrote fiction,' he said, 'because I spent time with them and they told stories . . . gossip, lies, fiction - things that go into novels.' He qualified as a lawyer, and later served as Mexico's ambassador to France, then taught for a time at Harvard. For a while he and Gabriel Garca Marquez wrote 'very bad film scripts' to underwrite serious literature. 'We were hopeless,' Fuentes said. 'We would argue all day about a semi-colon, or precisely the right adjective. This was film, remember, where it didn't matter whether it was a semi-colon or not and since the characters appeared on screen, the adjectives that described them were irrelevant] Still, it financed 100 Years of Solitude in Gabriel's case and The Death of Artemio Cruz in mine, so you could say it was worth it.'

In a long career in literature, he has seen the novel become a global means of expression. 'In Hay-on-Wye, I want to talk about the fact that the novel is now more alive than ever, that it has become a universal form through an extraordinary diversity of cultures. In the Cold War, we were given the choice between capitalism and communism - all the other cultures were left out. Now the world is faced with cultures as the protagonists of international life . . . but we lack any institutional means of understanding the clash of cultures.'

With a considerable literary output behind him, Fuentes's new novel, Diana the Lonely Huntress, not yet translated into English, represents an important shift: it is, he says, the first autobiographical novel. It is about a two-month affair with a Hollywood actress in Mexico in 1970 - a moment, he says, in which the Sixties were refusing to die. 'It's a mystery,' he says, 'why you end up writing what you do. This has taken 24 years to be written. Perhaps I have ended up writing the novel I wanted to write when I was 20 and didn't know how to.'

'The Orange Tree' is published by Andre Deutsch at pounds 13.99. Carlos Fuentes will deliver the PEN lecture, 'The New Geography of the Novel', at the Hay Festival on Saturday 28 May at 6.10pm.

(Photograph omitted)